Moscow was silent for the first few days after Sergei Antonov, the Rome station chief of the Bulgarian state airline, was arrested in Rome last November on suspicion of direct involvement in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II.
By the end of the month, however, a flood of vituperation had begun to flow out of the Kremlin. It has not yet ceased.
''Soviet media coverage of this story,'' observes a Radio Liberty researcher in Munich, ''has been denunciatory rather than investigatory. It has had as its goal not the elucidation of the case but only the repudiation of what Moscow calls a dirty campaign of lies and insinuations directed against the Soviet Union and its allies.''
The titles of Soviet press articles give an accurate impression of their tone: ''Hostile Action'' (Izvestia, Dec. 1), ''Absurd Allegations'' (Pravda, Dec. 14), ''The Tracks Lead to Washington'' (Izvestia, Dec. 26), '' 'The Antonov Affair' or an Attempt to Prove the Impossible'' (Litera-turnaya Gazeta, Dec. 29) , ''A Record for Slander'' (Izvestia, Dec. 30).
On Dec. 29 the Kremlin unleashed a sharp attack on the Pope himself, calling him a rigid anticommunist responsible for subversion in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Roman Catholic Church was charged with responsibility for the rise of the Polish trade union Solidarity. The Soviets had lost their patience - and exposed their dislike of John Paul II, which has been expressed in the provincial press frequently since his election in 1978.
One of the longest and most derogatory articles ever to appear in the Soviet press was featured in the Byelorussian journal Polymya in March 1981. The author of this 30-page article termed the Pope ''a split personality'' and accused him of having supported the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.
Was it only coincidence that this article, and others like it, came out just when the final phase of the plan for the attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Agca in St. Peter's Square was being activated?
Reviewing a file on Soviet press treatment of John Paul II, we can see that the Polish Pope was an awkward problem for Moscow from the start. Brief reports of his election in 1978 betrayed a lack of enthusiasm bordering on apprehension.
His visit to Poland at the beginning of June 1979 was extensively, though selectively, reported by the Soviet news media. A long Izvestia account of his visit to Auschwitz, for example, omitted his remarks about the suffering of the Jews. His trip to Turkey in November 1979 was not reported at all, nor was his visit to West Germany in November 1980 - a measure, perhaps, of Soviet discomfort at these travels.
Agca's attack on the Pope on May 13, 1981, was quickly reported by Soviet media. But twisting of the story - and evident disinformation - began immediately. Pravda alleged that Agca had links with Italian neo-Fascists. (No Italian neo-Fascists, however, have ever come to light nor even been suggested to be in Italy.)
Komsomolskaya Pravda accused United States diplomats in Turkey of training hired killers. The monthly Nauka i Religia commented that the murder of John Paul II ''would fully meet with the aspirations of ultraconservative clerical circles in Italy.''
On May 27, 1981, only two weeks after the shooting, Novosti (the ''unofficial'' Soviet press agency believed to be operated by the KGB) put out a long commentary intimating the US had tried to do the Pope in because of his failure to support American policies in El Salvador and the Middle East.
The story speculated that an unsatisfactory meeting in March 1981 in which William Wilson, the US envoy to the Vatican, disagreed with the Pope on US foreign policy, might have antagonized the Reagan administration. The commentary implied that the assassination attempt might thus have been conceived.
The Novosti piece was published, verbatim, in June of '81 in URSS Oggi, the Soviet Embassy's Italian-language magazine, causing a diplomatic furor. In September, the Soviet press attache in Rome disclaimed responsibility for it, declaring that it did not reflect the view of the embassy or the Soviet government.
In any event, Soviet media tried to ignore the plot during the following winter. Periodically, disinformation cropped up linking Agca to Nazis or the US Central Intelligence Agency. When NBC aired its white paper in September 1982, Tass, the official Soviet news agency, accused ''specialists in fabricating foul anti-Soviet sensations'' of ''contriving absurd inventions . . . with all the attributes of a cheap detective story.''
So the current flurry of Soviet media reaction is cut out of the same cloth as the Soviet response to the papal plot from the beginning. But it is more intense.
The approach has always been to pass it all off on others while claiming injured innocence. For example, the Soviet press has not explained Agca's stay of at least several weeks in Bulgaria in the summer of 1980, choosing instead to stress his travels ''through NATO countries.''
Allegations that the CIA (which, according to a 1981 Novosti handbook, is the principal instrument of ''state terrorism'' in the world) was instrumental in hatching the papal plot or is simply slandering the Soviet Union by fabricating all evidence of subversion from the East, are routine.
Some new big names have chimed in on the Soviet defense campaign. None of them has proved to be particularly original or persuasive. For example, Georgi Arbatov, much-traveled specialist on the US and US-Soviet relations, stated on Dec. 31 over Radio Moscow that the US was charging Soviet involvement in the assassination attempt on the Pope out of disappointment in Washington at the smooth change of leadership after Leonid Brezhnev's passing.
''I feel sorry for the US government,'' said an Italian official during the February visit of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York to Rome. ''Its senators accuse it of downplaying and neglecting the plot, while from Moscow it gets all the blame!''
This may not be such a bad predicament to be in after all. It is certainly less uncomfortable than that of the Soviet government and its current leader, Yuri Andropov. The more the finger points Eastward, the more it points at him.
What does the Soviet man in the street think? Does he share the sense of righteous indignation his press expresses every day? No one in the West seems to have much of an idea yet. Much of what the press prints is, after all, not designed for outside consumption, but to persuade Soviet citizens, or at least to give them a rationalization they can accept. As matters unfold during 1983, we are likely to get a better idea of the degree to which they have been persuaded of their leadership's innocence. Other articles ran March 17 and 18